Abdirahman Mohamed Ali was abducted as he left his mother’s house in Mogadishu two weeks ago. His body, dumped next to a restaurant, was discovered the next morning, arms tied behind his back, decapitated head placed on his chest. Evidence indicated he’d been tortured first.
By Rosie DiManno, Columnist
Thursday, October 04, 2012
On the same day that Ali disappeared, Hassan Yusuf Absuge was killed by three masked gunmen. Absuge was heading home from the radio station where he’d just finished working the night shift.
In August, Mahmoud Ali Buneyste was shot to death while filming on the sidelines of a soccer match outside the Somali capital. Just hours earlier, he’d attended the funeral of Yusuf Ali Osman, slain by teenage assailants dressed in high school uniforms.
All four men were sports reporters.
In war-ravaged Somalia, 14 journalists have been assassinated in 2012. Sports reporters have been specifically targeted for serial murder as a subgroup within the broader scope of media “enemies.” Al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group that controlled Mogadishu until a year ago, when it was pushed out by African Union troops, has claimed responsibility for most of the murders, though suspicion has also fallen on rogue freelance militias and even government forces.
Somalia is hell on earth, still and again, following a short period of comparative peace, at least around Mogadishu. There are no such things as innocent fun and games. Sport is considered an un-Islamic evil by Al-Shabaab, as is so much else that gives pleasure to the masses.
In the West, sports journalists grumble about spoiled athletes, league lockouts, belligerent coaches, short-tempered managers and nefarious owners. It’s the war correspondents who take risks. But in Somalia, sports reporters have found themselves on the front lines and in the trenches, simply for doing a job that the rest of us in this profession would consider as far distant from danger as it’s possible to get.
The toy department, they still call it in Western newsrooms. Four-star hotel rooms, jet travel, expense accounts, all quite plush even in the scaled-back economics of a media industry reeling from financial losses. Meanwhile, our Somali brethren — many of whom returned from exile when it appeared that sanity might be gaining a foothold — find themselves dead in the crosshairs of fundamentalist assailants who have managed to out-terrorize the Taliban.
“God is great. We have killed spy journalists — they were the real enemies of Islam,” an Al-Shabaab leader crowed to a Mogadishu radio station after the most recent spate of murders. “This operation is one of the victories that Islam gained, and such operations will continue.”
The decapitation of Ali was the first such atrocity recorded in what has become a guerrilla campaign against the Western-backed government by Al-Shabaab, recently driven out of their last remaining major urban stronghold, the port town of Kismayo, by Kenyan troops. (Kismayo had become their de facto capital since withdrawing from Mogadishu.)
Al-Shabaab militants consider themselves Al Qaeda agents in the turbulent Horn of Africa. During the years they controlled the capital and most of the failed state, Al-Shabaab banned sports, music and television and imposed sharia law. In 2010 men were killed in Mogadishu just for watching World Cup matches. In retaliation for the presence of Ugandan soldiers among the African Union coalition forces protecting the interim central government, the vicious extremist group launched twin bombing attacks against fans gathered to watch the World Cup final in Kampala, leaving 74 dead and 70 injured.
Now, continuing to fight what they call a tactical war, they’re hunting sports reporters. They call them “journalists of evil” for glorifying “satanic sports,” games condemned also for their alleged heritage of old Christian cultures, which would be disputed by those ancient Greeks who established the Olympics.
Sports officials have been murdered as well, from referees to administrators to volunteers, whether directly targeted or as collateral victims. In April, the country’s Olympic Committee chairman and the head of the Somali football federation were among the 11 fatalities when a female suicide bomber struck at Mogadishu’s just-reopened National Theatre. Al-Shabaab corrected news reports, claiming on its Twitter feed that its militants had planted the explosives. The Olympic Committee’s former vice-president, peace campaigner Abdulkader Yahye Sheik Ali, was killed in July by gunmen who raided his home.
Said Mohamed Nur, the slain Somali football president, had been heavily involved in re-establishing a national soccer league in a country where hundreds of local football teams continued to play through more than two decades of civil war in defiance of Al-Shabaab’s edicts.
You can’t keep a kid from kicking a ball. And Somalis are rabid for soccer. Hundreds sent congratulatory messages to the Under-17 squad when it knocked Sudan out of the African youth championships a fortnight ago. They did it without their first-string goalkeeper, Abdulkader Dheer Hussein, who was shot and killed in April as he walked home from a training session.
Upwards of 30,000 spectators watched the opening match of Somalia’s Division A championship in September, staged at University Stadium in Mogadishu. The national stadium had been used as a barracks by Al-Shabaab fighters and is under reconstruction.
Across the country, sports facilities are being rebuilt with dedicated aid from donor nations. For the first time in a generation, regional soccer competitions have been held because clubs feel safe to travel across areas previously held by Al-Shabaab. Games have even been played at night — that had last happened 22 years ago. The national football side now sits 187th in FIFA rankings, ahead of 21 other countries that haven’t suffered through interminable civil war.
A four-week long basketball tournament in Mogadishu just concluded, from which will be selected a national hoops team. And Somalia sent two athletes to the London Olympics, warmly welcomed. The most famous Somali-born athlete ever is long-distance runner Mo Farrah, who won two gold medals for
Britain at the London games but is still revered back home as one of their own.
Most crucially, sports are helping to knit back together the shredded fabric of Somali society. Sports for peace programs have been widely initiated. Organized leagues recruit and reintegrate youth who might otherwise be drawn to the various militias and street gangs.
There are, however fragile, hopeful stories of a nascent Somalia emerging from the ashes of war. Sports have taken the lead.
Sadly, documenting those stories is killing the messengers.
Source: Toronto Star